CORKSCREW / Back to Basics

Organic Wine

The nature and nurture of organically produced wines.

When people hear the word "organic," they tend to shrink back as visions of tofu dance in their head. But organic wine is getting a bad rap. About 50 years back, before Big Chemical arrived on the scene, organic wine was all you could buy. And people drank a lot of it. Many vineyards throughout France, the wine mecca, never stopped using organic methods, refusing to use synthetics. But America branched off into using chemicals 'cause the sales pitch was irresistible to grape farmers seeking solace from increasing pests and fungus. Since the 1980s, however, a new movement has sprung up. California grape growers (and other wineries around the world) have been experimenting with sustainable farming techniques, a.k.a. organic.

Essentially, organic wine is produced from grapes not treated with pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. The end goal lies in returning the vines back to their original health, thus increasing grape quality and longevity. Like a human being, if you drug up a plant with chemicals year after year, its natural immune system gets weaker. In this environment, a vine cannot produce as abundantly or produce the highest quality grapes. So the saying "You are what you eat" applies to grapes as well as people.

Wineries use several techniques to be organic. They create inviting habitats for birds and insects that eliminate vine-eating pests, discontinue the use of synthetic chemicals and use recycled compost from the vineyards for fertilizer.

The use of sulfur is allowed in organic farming (but not allowed in more stringent organic "sulfite free" winemaking certifications). Adding natural sulfur creates stability during the winemaking process and destroys bacteria that can harm the fermenting juice. Despite all the negative press aimed at sulfites, the problem has been grossly exaggerated. Nearly all people can support sulfites. The real culprit for allergy sufferers is histamine, a naturally occurring byproduct of winemaking, especially reds. These histamines produce symptoms similar to an allergic reaction and occur in a very small percentage of wine drinkers.

Using the word "organic" as a marketing tool is tough choice for most wineries. Some wineries proudly place "organic" on the wine label, after having gone through a rigorous three-year transition for a coveted government certification. But other wineries practice organic grape farming on the sly, without capitalizing on the name. "There's a stigma with putting "organic' on the label," says David Taylor of Nature's Harvest in Tampa, so some prefer not to advertise it. But they see the value in keeping the vines and the soil healthy. Some winery owners, such as Mike Benziger of Benziger Winery, cite the swing to organic as a way to pass on healthier soil, and continued profits, to the next generation.

The "undercover" wineries are plentiful, and the names might surprise you. Wineries like Fetzer, Frog's Leap, Sinskey, Quintessa, Fife, Monte Volpe and Honig are well into the organic transition but don't advertise it on the label. With the transition, Benziger boasts successes in increased juice quality, with intense, vibrant flavors not found in grapes farmed with chemicals.

So organic wines do not need to provoke visions of hippies or gross you out. It's just a commons sense way of generating better wine for an increasingly picky American market. These wines should please your palate:

Monte Volpe 1998 Pinot Bianco Beautifully balanced acidity with crisp pears popping out all over. Goes down smooth and easy ($11).

Bonterra 1999 Viogner Smells like a flower meadow on a spring day and tastes of soft vanilla. Absolutely amazing wine from one of the grandfathers of the organic movement. I'd drink this all day long ($17).

Fife 1999 Zinfandel Soft, spicy at the end of the sip. This is a mouth wine — not much on the nose but stirs big blackberry and black cherry happenings in the mouth. Worth the extra bucks ($20).

Honig 1999 Cabernet Amazing wine. Full-bodied, rich, juicy fruit with smooth tannins. It's got some cranberry stuff going on too ($29).

Comments? Questions? Great wine experience to share? Talk to us! We'll feature your comments in our Mailbag. E-mail [email protected], mail to Corkscrew, 1310 E. Ninth Ave., Tampa, FL 33605 or call 1-800-341-LOAF.

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